Sunday September 25, 2022

Forgettable victims

September 29, 2021

Feminist media scholars have long pointed out that the race, class, and age of victims of gender-related violence play a crucial role in determining whether stories become newsworthy as well as how they are framed; namely, whether the victims are portrayed as ‘innocent’ or, conversely, shamed and blamed.

The families of victims whose stories have gone unheeded know this only too well. In a recent Washington Post article, they decried the silence surrounding the deaths of their loved ones. They insist that Gabriella Petito’s case has received such widespread international media attention precisely because she was white, middle-class and photogenic. Whereas their loved ones’ disappearances – women of colour, poor women, trans women – have gone publicly unremarked, at best.

This differential media coverage, however, merely reflects a wider societal truth: Some people’s lives are deemed more grievable and, consequently, their deaths generate a public outpouring of sorrow. Other lives, as feminist philosopher Judith Butler has taught us, are considered less worthy.

We live, she says, in a society in which the distribution of liveable lives is profoundly unequal, and only those who are recognised as ‘mattering’ become grievable in the wider social and public sense.

This also helps explain the power of the hashtag #SayHerName, which began as part of a campaign to raise awareness of the number of Black women and girls who have been killed by law enforcement officers in the US. It is now being used in relation to Sabina Nessa’s murder.

This public naming of victims is not only about raising awareness or even recognising the uniqueness of each individual victim, each one with her own specific history, passions and dreams. Rather, by naming these women, we refuse to make them into a number or statistic while also – crucially – claiming each and every life as mattering, and thus as grievable.

While Sabina Nessa’s brutal murder has indeed made the national and even international news, social media commentators have noted that there was an initial lack of mainstream media attention. This is because unlike Everard and Petito, Nessa was a woman of colour.

In the murder’s wake, a storm began on Twitter, emphasising the difference between the Nessa case and the kind of media attention Everard’s case received from the get-go.

Tweets like one by well-known actress and TV presenter Jameela Jamil, which demanded that ‘the same energy and level of outrage’ be seen in the Nessa case as in Everard’s, have made it more difficult for traditional news outlets to ignore the increasing fury arising from the lack of commensurate coverage in the UK.

Given that the mainstream UK media is now following the case daily, it seems that the interventions across cyberspace have had an impact. Indeed, they appear to have propelled a racial reckoning within traditional media outlets.

Excerpted: ‘Sabina Nessa’s murder and the grievability of women’s lives’